Discerning the Will of God?

A lot of attention is given in Pop American Christianity to discerning the will of God. This mostly comes from Evangelicals, but the sensibilities have crept into all denominations. You hear talk of an individual trying to discern the will of God for their life in such things as which school to attend, what vocation to choose, who to marry, and where to live.

Some individuals talk with a great deal of certainty in having discovered God’s will in some of these areas. They can speak of specific answers to prayer, of signs, or of orchestrated circumstances, and the like. Other individuals will confess to frustration in being less certain and lacking in direct and clear indications of what God wants them to do.

This piece will necessarily be too short to address this sense, often with urgency, of discerning God’s will for one’s life. And I do not want to entirely rule out the possibility that God can so direct. But I do want to say that I think the attempt at such discernment can be misplaced.

I believe that talk of “discernment” should be replaced with talk of “learning”. Largely, we are taught what God’s will is. The Psalmist intones, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God” (Ps. 143:10). Especially in the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and in the Lord’s Prayer we learn what God’s will is, although we will spend a lifetime learning it well! We don’t have to be unclear about it. We can know “God’s Will” because he reveals it to us in Scripture! Our concern should rather be in doing his will instead of doing our own will. Little wonder we are taught to pray, “Thy will be done.”

Concerning decisions we make we are instructed to ask for wisdom (cf. James 1:5). We should make personal decisions with an eye to asking what best conforms to God’s will revealed in his word. Next week I will flesh out a few things we can know about God’s will.

Since You Asked…

What is the purpose of the Psalm Reading? And why do we often sing (chant) the Psalm?

“The appointed psalm is sung as a meditation on the First Lesson, a response to it, and a bridge to the Second Lesson. … Hearers of the lessons need a chance to assimilate the First Lesson before the Second Lesson begins. The required use of a psalm between the lessons provides for the restoration of psalm singing to its traditional place in the life of the church and gives the worshiper the opportunity to participate in the singing (or reading) of a portion of Scripture…” (from “Manual on the Liturgy” companion to the LBW, from Augsburg Pub.)

Chanting can be thought of as “exalted speech”. It sets the speech apart from regular speech and the slower cadence allows for reflection.

Proclaiming and Teaching Jesus as the Christ

At Gift of Grace Lutheran Church we have pledged ourselves to being faithful to the Scriptures as God’s Word. Accordingly we hold to the time-honored teachings of the Church based on Holy Writ. These teachings are reflected in the Ecumenical Creeds of the Early Church, namely the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. We also believe that the Lutheran Confessions give faithful witness to the teachings of the Bible.

The Apostle Paul will encourage a young appointed elder by the name of Timothy to guard “the deposit entrusted” to him. (cf. 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 1:14) This deposit is the Christian Faith. Paul will then encourage Timothy to pass this deposit on to faithful teachers who themselves will be able to pass it on to others. (2 Tim. 2:2)

Time-honored teachings! Dogma! There is tension here with modern sensibilities in our culture! Commercially we have been inundated with advertisements touting products that are “new and improved”. In entertainment we look for novelty and creativity. And with great scientific and technical advances we mistakenly regard earlier ages as unenlightened, superstitious, and dark.

Whether spoken or not, the underlying assumption of many unbelievers is that with our greater knowledge today, teachings put forth two thousand years ago have been outgrown.

Liberal Christianity can be understood as an attempt to force our modern-age “enlightened understanding” into the molds formed by earlier Christian teaching. Here inspiration gets reduced to some general principles, but particular commandments, instructions, admonitions, and promises can be dismissed as being off the mark. The idea of Divine Revelation also is diminished from a “Thus saith the Lord,” to “This reflected the best understanding of the time.”

This is what we are up against. And it is why we need to proclaim and teach Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. If the Son of God indeed became human, died and rose again, then it does not matter what age he spoke in. He speaks from infinite wisdom and knowledge. He speaks truth! He is the truth!

Since You Asked…

Why do we stand during the reading of the Gospel Lesson?

By standing we are giving expression of special respect and adoration. In the Gospel Accounts we meet our Lord Jesus Christ in a special way. In these writings we are presented with Jesus’ Judean and Galilean ministry. We also have a record of the very words of our Lord (his teachings, parables, dialog, etc.). We hear the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the work of our salvation.

Although the entire Bible is the Word of God, it is in the Gospels that our Lord is most directly presented to us. So you might say that Christ himself is being presented before us in the Gospel Lesson. It is therefore most appropriate that we stand at attention.

Our Mission

One of the things that we will be discussing, reflecting upon, and promoting at the Annual Meeting is outreach. We know that the mission of our Lord is to redeem the world. We know this from the most familiar passage in the Bible, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).

The mission is not ours! It belongs to our Lord Jesus. And yet he has chosen his followers to participate in his mission. To his appointed leaders, the Apostles, he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:19-20).

The Apostles were witnesses to Christ’s death and resurrection. They proclaimed his dying and rising and invited people to repent. Their claim was that Christ died to make the forgiveness of our sins possible. And they taught that Christ’s third day rising bodily from the grave proves that by his death he had conquered sin, death, and the devil. This victory he means to share with all who receive the gift of salvation by faith. In Christ we have the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the chance to walk in newness of life as we await sharing in a bodily resurrection like his.

This Apostolic message itself becomes the power for salvation (cf. Ro. 1:16). It is through this message, often simply called the Gospel, that the Holy Spirit enables people to have faith in Christ and the work he accomplished on our behalf.

To participate in this mission is to be enlivened in this Faith ourselves. It is to become so familiar with the Word of the Lord that we are able to faithfully share and teach it to others.

Since You Asked…

Do Lutherans Promote Private Confession?

“Confession has not been abolished by the preachers on our side. … The people are carefully instructed concerning the consolation of the Word of absolution (forgiveness) so that they may esteem it as a great and precious thing. It is not the voice of the man who speaks it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin, for it is spoken in God’s stead and by God’s command. …it is necessary for terrified consciences” (Augsburg Confession, XXV)

Confession has two parts: First that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the Pastor as from God himself.

Celebration and Renewal!

The calendar year dictates the tempo and rhythm of many things. Often the close of the year is a time of closure, and the New Year a time of beginnings. In business the fiscal year often corresponds with the calendar year. Books are closed at the end of the year, audits are run. Newly elected officials begin their terms of office in the New Year. And the change in year often marks the interlude between academic semesters.

Congregations are also affected by this cadence. Even though the Church has a liturgical calendar, finances and elections often correspond to the calendar year. This is reflected in the Annual Meetings that follow early in the New Year, usually with just enough time to compose reports and work up a proposed budget.

Gift of Grace aims at having our Annual Meeting on the first Sunday in February, as it will be this year. We hope you will plan to be in attendance at our Divine Service on Sunday, February 3, and then remain for the Annual Meeting close on the Service’s heels.

The Annual Meeting provides an opportunity to pause in the ongoing mission of our Lord entrusted to us. In pausing we can reflect back on the path we trod in the previous year. Did we stay on track with the goals set a year ago? What have we learned over the year? What can we be thankful for and celebrate?

The meeting also affords a time to project ourselves forward. With the election of new leaders mixed in with those continuing their terms, we look forward to renewed inspiration. With the adoption of a budget we make our best plans on how we can generously engage in “mission spending”.

Celebration and renewal! A chance to rededicate ourselves to the Lord’s mission in our community. I hope you will plan to attend. Look for a report with the agenda this Sunday to help you prepare for the meeting…

Since You Asked…

What is the meaning of the “KYRIE” (kir-E-A)?

KYRIE is a Latin term which is in turn is a transliteration of a Greek word meaning “Lord.” In the Latin Mass the term KYRIE was combined with the term ELESION meaning “have mercy.” In addition, the Mass included a three-fold response: KYRIE ELEISON, CHRISTE ELEISON, KYRIE ELEISON, which translated is “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” In our Lutheran Worship Service we utilize a prayer from the Latin Mass known as a Peace Litany. A Litany is a responsive prayer. This Litany is usually led by our Assisting Minister, and the congregation response is the KYRIE ELEISON. And so the Assisting Minister begins, “In peace let us pray to the Lord,” and the congregation responds to this and each succeeding petition with, “Lord, have mercy.” (with help from the Manual on the Liturgy a companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, publ. by Augsburg).

Thanks!

Leslie and I are back after an extended long stay in North Carolina. We had traveled the day after Christmas to be with Leslie’s ninety-seven year-old dad who lived in a Senior Apartment in High Point, North Carolina. After the second night with him we ended up staying with Hampton in a Winston Salem, North Carolina hospital and then a nearby Hospice Care Home, until his death on January 6. The occasion was the Epiphany of Our Lord and this year it fell on a Sunday.

I liked to refer to him as my Father-in-Love. Ernest Hampton Morgan, everyone called him Hampton, was a World War II decorated veteran. His funeral was at New Philadelphia Moravian Church where he was a member. His burial, likely in early May, will be in Arlington National Cemetery in our Nation’s Capitol.

We wish to thank you for your prayers and loving support. Tom Rislow and Jeremy Schoonover were kind and generous to lead worship and provide good Scriptural messages in my absence. Had I missed a third Sunday, Pastor Dave Steffenson had offered to come to ensure with his presence as a Pastor that the congregation would be able to celebrate Holy Communion. You were so kind to pick up the slack. And the family was touched by your expression of love in providing flowers for the Visitation and Funeral Service.

Being gone so long from the congregation I serve, my longest absence from the parish since my ordination thirty-five years ago, was difficult. Leslie and I enjoyed the time with so much of Leslie’s side of the family, but we both agreed it was hard to be away from our congregation family. Although tired and emotionally spent, we found a great deal of comfort and strength last Sunday in receiving your hugs, and to hear your support and love spoken. And as always, we find so much encouragement in the Divine Service and our great “hymn singing” congregation. Thanks!

Since You Asked…

What is the significance of the Epiphany and the Season that follows?

The word Epiphany means “manifestation” or “a revealing”. Since light helps to reveal and make manifest, on January 6 we recall the Magi led by the light of the star to the manger to worship Jesus, “the Light of the World” given birth by Mary. We will go on in the Season that follows to commemorate the manifestation of the Trinity at Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River, where the voice of the Father spoke, and the Holy Spirit descended and alighted on Jesus as he came forth from the river. The voice identifies Jesus as God’s Son in whom the Father is well pleased. The Season after the Epiphany closes with the Transfiguration whereby a future glimpse of the Resurrected glory of Christ was revealed.


The Form is the Message

In keeping with the theme I introduced last week when I shared with you the significance of the Latin saying, lex orandi lex credenda (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith), this week I will share other examples of what happens when we play around with the order of worship.

Last week I shared how many contemporary attempts at creating new worship forms lack being Trinitarian. That is, you do not hear “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” being invoked or mentioned much, if at all. Prayers do not end with something similar to, “…for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”

Many contemporary attempts that I have witnessed, unlike traditional liturgies, do not use Biblical language in the order. The traditional liturgy, as reflected in our Lutheran liturgy, is almost entirely composed of passages from Scripture, especially from the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and the Book of Revelation.

Many modern worship services emphasize informality. And this is in stark contrast to historical forms which from early on looked for exalted language and gestures, and were composed with a kind of formalism that bespeaks of reverence in the presence of holiness.

From early on the meal, that is, the Lord’s Supper, played an important role in the weekly gathering of believers. In Lutheran terminology, traditional worship was dually focused on Word and Sacrament.

Archeological and historical records inform us that the earliest gathering of the saints for the Divine Service may have been without seating. And later when pews became the norm, worshipers participated in a lot of movement – standing, kneeling, bowing, processionals, eating, drinking, making the sign of the cross, exchanging the sign of peace, and so on. Many current attempts at gathering allow for much sitting and can appear as, and allow for, mere spectating.

In all these ways, and more, we think we have not changed the message, just the form. But the form implies more about the message than we realize!

Since You Asked…

What is the purpose of the “Silence for reflection and self-examination” in the Brief Order For Confession and Forgiveness?

“The silence for self-examination and reflection should be an extended silence to enable personal application of the general phrases of the prayer that follows. Silence of one or two minutes is not too long” (Manual on the Liturgy – LBW).

This is a helpful time to reflect back on our lives over the past week and ask ourselves whether we have been disobedient or unfaithful, bad-tempered or dishonest, or whether we have hurt anyone by word or deed. By allowing for this period of reflection we are able to personalize what would otherwise remain quite general.


Worship Leads to Theology

I thought I would try a little Latin lingo on you this week. Here it goes. Lex orandi lex credendi. The translation in English would be something like “the rule of praying is the rule of faith.” And the idea behind this motto from the Christian Tradition is that worship leads to theology.

Why does this matter? Well I’m glad you asked!

For starters, it suggests that there was a worshiping tradition first, and then there was the development of creeds and doctrines that reflected and safeguarded the way disciples worshiped and celebrated their Lord Jesus.

Commensurately, it suggests that if we worship differently than did the first believers and their successors, it very well may be that we are unwittingly adopting understandings that are doctrinally different than what was taught by our Lord and his apostles.

Take for example the way we address the one we worship. We are warned in the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods! So how are we to address the One True God? And why do we as Lutherans worship “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”?

Early on Christians worshiped Father, Son, and Holy Spirit when they offered prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. They believed Jesus’ testimony that he was the one pointed to and anticipated in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Law and the Prophets. They knew Jesus addressed this God as “Father” and he taught his disciples to pray to “our Father”. Jesus also spoke of the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son’s very presence to be with believers until the end of the age. And so, Trinitarian language was embedded in the worship of the Christian community before the formation of the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

When lex orandi lex credendi is not appreciated you can witness all kinds of dangerous attempts of creating new worship forms, not the least of which are forms which fail to be Trinitarian…

Since You Asked…

What do Lutherans believe is given in Holy Communion?

“We believe, teach, and confess that in the Holy Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present and are truly distributed and received with the bread and wine. We believe, teach, and confess that the words of the testament of Christ are to be understood in no other way than in their literal sense, and not as though the bread symbolized the absent body and the wine the absent blood of Christ, but that because of the sacramental union they are truly the body and blood of Christ” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Art. VII.)

The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10 that the bread is “a participation in the Lord’s body.” If the Lord’s body were not truly present, the bread would perhaps be a participation in his spirit. But Paul says it is a participation in his body!


Word and Sacrament

There is a shape or pattern to historic Christian liturgy. In summary form that design is fourfold: It has involved being gathered, being ministered to by God’s Word, being further nurtured by the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and then being sent out in mission. Gathering, Word, Meal, and Sending!

As Lutherans we often talk about “Word and Sacrament”, and in keeping with the sequence I just mentioned, we first are gathered by the Holy Spirit to receive the Word and the Sacrament, and then having been forgiven, nourished, and equipped we are sent out to our vocations in the family and society. And then having been sent in this endeavor, we are regathered once again for the Divine Service, that is, to be forgiven, nourished, and equipped by the Word and the Sacraments.

From the earliest days in Christianity the cycle just mentioned happened at least every seven days. And Sunday, the day of the week that our Lord was resurrected, became the most common day to meet once a week. This is also called in Scripture “the first day of the week.”

In Acts 2:42 we read, “And they [baptized believers] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” It would be easy to quickly read and gloss over the word “devoted”. The tense of the verb here indicates that they “continually devoted themselves,” and there is a sense of the Greek word behind the English of giving steadfast and unremitting attention to a matter!

And in Luke 24, beginning with verse 27 the Risen Lord Jesus is found teaching two of his followers. We read, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” And then just a few verses later we find Jesus breaking bread with them at table. It was then that they recognized Jesus! Word and Sacrament! Being gathered for the same, and then being sent…

Since You Asked…

What does the Advent Wreath Symbolize?

The circle of the wreath reminds us of eternity and our God and Father who has no beginning and no end. The green boughs indicate the hope of life being renewed. The candles represent Christ, the Light of God, who comes into this dark world to bring light and life. The four colored candles lit successively over the four Sundays in Advent, represent the patience required in waiting for Christ’s coming. As there were centuries of waiting between the Old Testament prophets and the birth of Christ, so we must patiently wait for Christ’s return at the end of the age. At Gift of Grace we wait until Christmas Eve to finally light the white center candle (the Christ Candle) to indicate that the fulfillment of the promise of God with the birth of the Christ Child on the first Christmas morn.

The Liturgical Year

I love how the liturgical calendar differs from our regular calendars. For instance a New Year liturgically begins with the First Sunday in Advent, which this year is December 2. And then instead of Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall, you have the Seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. In place of National holidays such as Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and the like, you have the principle feasts of The Nativity of Our Lord, The Baptism of Our Lord, The Epiphany of Our Lord, The Transfiguration of Our Lord, The Resurrection of Our Lord, and Christ the King Sunday.

Other important feasts of the Church year that have fixed dates, but their celebration often takes place at the nearest Sunday include The Circumcision and Name of Jesus on Jan. 1, The Presentation of Our Lord on Feb. 2, The Annunciation of Our Lord on Mar. 25, The Visitation on May 31, The Nativity of St. John the Baptist on June 24, St. Micahel and All Angels on Sept. 29, All Saints Day on Nov. 1. And of course as Lutherans we often celebrate the lesser festival of Reformation Day on October 31.

What saddens me is how some of the principle feasts have been usurped by Pop Culture with a different way of celebrating and having fun. For example, when we think of Halloween we usually think of trick-or-treating and as dressing up in costumes – some of ghouls and goblins, and others as monsters, famous people, cartoon figures, and you name it. All good fun! But where is the remembrance that October 31 is “All Hallows’ Eve”, that is, the Eve of All Saint’s Day?

I could go on by mentioning Jolly Saint Nick and the Easter Bunny, but what’s the use? If only these fun ways of celebrating were on another day, perhaps close by, and we celebrated Christian Feasts with the Divine Service, and an attendant meditation on the event in Christ’s life and ministry being celebrated!

As I mentioned, I love the liturgical calendar…

Since You Asked…

What is the significance of the Season of Advent?

The Church year begins with Advent, a season of preparation that looks toward both Bethlehem and Christ’s return at the end of the age. Advent is its own Season and the rich symbols and themes should be safeguarded and celebrated without being drowned out by the upcoming celebration of Christmas. The first two Sundays in Advent center on the Parousia (Christ’s Second Coming). The third Sunday in Advent centers on John the Baptist as the herald of Christ. And the fourth Sunday often centers on the Virgin Mary in her exalted role in giving birth to God’s Anointed One.


The Apostolic Community

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The tenth and final footprint of the Holy Spirit noted by our Assistant to the Bishop, the Rev. Dr. Gemechis Buba, has to do with how people who come to Christ by way of Baptism are then joined by the Holy Spirit to the Apostolic Community, that is, the Church.

There is an extreme emphasis on the individual in our culture. Perhaps this is a reaction to the ills of the ideologies of collectivism and socialism. But we need to be aware of the harm with all “isms”, including “individualism”.

Created in the image and after the likeness of the Triune God we were created for community, so that we might join in the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and with others created in God’s image. We were born to a family that resided with other families in a community. And in Baptism, joined to Christ the head, we necessarily are joined to all the other members of his Body.

It is in the Church, as the workshop of the Holy Spirit, that sinners are made into disciples. It is in this context that we are ministered to with Word and Sacrament that are extended to us from outside ourselves! One does not commune oneself. You receive the gift from Christ’s ambassador.

And so the tenth footprint joins the preceding nine. By way of reminder, the first footprint is about God’s promise to send the Spirit. The second is waiting upon (asking in prayer for) the gift. The third is recognizing that the gift is poured out on the community before filling each individual. The fourth is the aid of the Spirit in overcoming communication barriers. The fifth is the boldness the Holy Spirit enables in our witness. The sixth is clarity in pointing to Christ’s crucifixion. The seventh is the constant and repeated witness to the Cross. The eighth is in working the message deep into the hearts of sinners. And the ninth is in our being joined to Christ through Baptism.

Since You Asked…

What is meant by the term “liturgy”? (from the Greek, “work of the people” or “public service”):

More than a set form of service or one particular service, the liturgy is the whole body of texts and music used for the worship of God. The Lutheran Book of Worship is the liturgy of many Lutheran churches in North America. (from “Manual on the Liturgy” companion to the LBW, from Augsburg Pub.)

Our Lutheran liturgy involves the participation of all who are gathered: clergy, worship assistants, and laity. Worship is not a spectator sport. We have been gathered by God to receive from Him. And so in reverence, we give thanks by offering praise and thanksgiving to our Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Liturgical worship helps us all share in this.